Ireland edge towards title

Date published: March 21 2015

Ireland rose to the challenge set by Wales earlier on Saturday, thumping Scotland 40-10 to claim top spot in the Six Nations table.

An incredible second-half blitz from the Welsh in Rome left Joe Schmidt’s side chasing a points difference deficit of 20, with England hosting France in the final match of the tournament shortly after full-time at Murrayfield.

Paul O’Connell and Jared Payne touched down in addition to a brace from the monstrous Sean O’Brien as the men in green flourished in the Edinburgh sunshine.

Scotland mustered a solitary score through Finn Russell, and an early penalty from captain Greig Laidlaw.

In need of points, Schmidt’s troops enjoyed the perfect start.

From a seemingly innocuous position, a slip in the Scottish midfield suddenly presented Ireland with a huge overlap, Rob Kearney’s arcing run and pass to Robbie Henshaw taking the visitors to within five metres of the line.

Scotland defended the subsequent onslaught ably, but the pressure always looked likely to tell, O’Connell crashing over round the fringes of the breakdown.

Jonny Sexton converted, and took Ireland’s lead to ten after as many minutes with a penalty, Scotland pulling down a maul on their own 22.

The hosts responded well to the furious Irish opening with a spell of possession in their opponents’ half that culminated in Laidlaw’s penalty.

The livened atmosphere at Murrayfield soon grew dark again, however, as from a lineout on the Scots’ 22, the home forwards parted as though Moses, not O’Brien was carrying the pill, the flanker evading Dougie Fife and powering over for a try converted by Sexton.

There followed a frenetic few minutes, where O’Brien lacerated the Scottish midfield, and Tommy Bowe was denied a try by a superb Russell cover tackle, while the unlikely duo of Jim Hamilton and substitute Geoff Cross made impressive inroads of their own.

With the match fast developing into as expansive and high-octane fare as anything involving either side this tournament, it was Scotland who struck next.

From a Tommy Seymour grubber down the left touchline, a smart, and not entirely subtle, nudge from the chasing Stuart Hogg saw Jared Payne collide with Kearney, the Scotland full-back claiming the ball, and a few phases later, Adam Ashe feeding Russell to canter round under the posts for a first Test try.

Laidlaw converted, but Sexton added his second penalty to restore a two-score, ten-point gap on 34 minutes.

Matt Scott almost sent Russell in again after the centre gathered his teammate’s sumptuous chip-kick, but his attempted offload was knocked astray in contact.

Sexton scored first after the interval with a penalty from point-blank range as Ireland began to seize control of the match, and the fly-half delivered a sweet inside ball in the shadow of the Scottish uprights to send Payne diving over the whitewash.

It was far too simple a score from Vern Cotter’s perspective, given the number of defenders on hand, and the ease with which Blair Cowan was bumped aside by the centre.

With Sexton’s conversion, and the score at 30-10, Ireland had equalled Wales’ points difference, and should have bettered it when he slammed a routine penalty off the post 53 minutes.

Repeat infringements and maddening indiscipline have long blighted this Scotland squad, and as referee Jérôme Garcès lost patience, Cross was shown yellow – the Scots’ fifth of this championship.

Again, however, Sexton was off-target from the tee.

Bowe next came closest to posting crucial points on the board, his tip-toe down the touchline was stalled by Sam Hidalgo-Clyne’s tap-tackle, the stumbling winger’s momentum was sufficiently halted for him to fall short of the line.

Sexton finally rediscovered his range on 62 minutes, taking the margin on the scoreboard to 23 points with 19 minutes left.

With the requisite points scored, both half-backs, Sexton and his partner Conor Murray, reverted to the disciplined, controlled kicking game that has dominated Ireland’s championship and characterised their recent performances under Schmidt.

Pinning Scotland deep in their own 22 with an array of dinks, hoists and probes, they had their reward, and made safe their elevation – as things stand – to first place when O’Brien ignored a massive overlap to battle his way over from five metres.

Ian Madigan, on for Sexton a minute earlier, converted, but as the Fields of Athenry began to ring out, Scotland threatened to throw a huge spanner in the works.

Hogg looked to have collected Rob Harley’s looping pass and scored in the corner, but Jamie Heaslip’s tackle had forced the ball from his grasp at the last possible instant. In such moments are championships won and lost.

Ireland preserved their lead, passing up another chance to extend it when Madigan hooked a penalty with the last kick of the game.

All eyes now point towards Twickenham – England tasked with overturning a 26-point deficit – and a phenomenal climax to this, the ever-engrossing Six Nations.

Man of the match: The Irish back-row were outstanding around the contact area and in the loose – none more so than two-try, all-action Sean O’Brien.

Moment of the match: Heaslip’s tackle. It could prove title-deciding.

Villain of the match: Nothing nasty to report.

The scorers:

For Scotland:
Try: Russell
Con: Laidlaw
Pen: Laidlaw
Yellow Card: Cross

For Ireland:
Tries: O'Connell, O'Brien 2, Payne
Cons: Sexton 3
Pens: Sexton 4

The teams: 

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Dougie Fife, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 David Denton, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Adam Ashe, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Jim Hamilton, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Ryan Grant. Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Alasdair Dickinson, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Rob Harley, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Greig Tonks, 23 Tim Visser

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones

Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh 
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Pascal Gauzère (France), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

By Jamie Lyall